On Not Being on Ostrich

Sarahby: Sarah Prescott

About a year into my first professional job, the economy went through a recession. The company I was working for was small, and profit margins were thin. To survive this period, the company rolled back wages for everyone working there. While I was still making a decent salary, my apartment rent suddenly took up a much larger proportion of my paycheque.

Initially, I didn’t change anything about the way I lived. I wasn’t particularly extravagant in my lifestyle, and I was still getting overtime from all the fieldwork I was doing. And surely the economy would pick up again soon. Everything would be fine – right? [This is always the part of the story where I imagine myself as an ostrich with its head in the sand, as biologically incorrect as that idea might be.]

Eventually, I had a moment of truth.  I faced the fact that my apartment was now too expensive and I would have to move.  It was a very uncomfortable decision. My apartment was a great place to live – well located, sunny and comfortable. But finally, I took ownership of the idea that I needed to make a change, I made the decision to move, and I started to look for a new home.

Moving towards a decision, interestingly, was the hardest part of the whole process. There were other apartments available, and while moving was a hassle, the whole process only took a few weeks. I found a decent-enough place, and I began to settle in.

I’ve undergone a similar mental process in the way that I think about climate change. When I was growing up, climate change was way off in the future somewhere – something we should worry about, but not really something that would affect my life. I was doing a decent job at being pro-environmental by recycling, driving a compact car, and making a few efforts to reduce the amount of single-use plastic in my life. But in other ways, I was living the same Standard Urban Canadian Lifestyle as everyone else, and being OK with that.

That idea has been harder and harder to maintain. Part of me wants to keep on trying –  I knew how to live in the world in that ‘climate change is far away’ world, and it was comfortable. But the news about climate change keeps getting more serious and urgent. This is because the world has continued on a path that leads us towards increased climate change, and because predictions of how the climate might change under certain levels of emissions are now quite specific and serious.

For example:

This article written in 2017 describes what a world might look like in 2100 if a) we continue on our current climate change trajectory, to 4 or more degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels (above the current estimated level of 0.9 °C) and b) the resulting climate change consequences are on the more severe end of the spectrum of possibilities. Life looks very different in that world, with high potential for increased drought, deadly heat waves, intense smog, increased disease, the loss of coral reefs, fishery collapse, sea level rise, even reduced intellectual functionality of our brains from high carbon dioxide levels. That’s not even mentioning the resulting economic disruption, food disruption, and social and economic disruption. Scary stuff. But – we’ll be able to avoid all of that, right?

Then, in the fall of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report describing what even 1.5 ° C of warming might look like, as well as describing what we would need to do in order to achieve that. Even at 1.5 ° C of warming, we are likely to see significant damage to coral reefs, certain fisheries, coastal flooding, and changes to the climate of the Arctic. The most sobering graph to me is below, and shows how we would need to change our carbon emissions – essentially immediately – in order to reach that goal:


The graph shows two different pathways to achieve net zero emissions. It would be safer (e.g. less likely to result in unexpected consequences to the climate) to reach that goal by 2040 than by 2055 – but you can see that the slope of the emissions reduction required in either case is quite steep. That is going to be difficult to do.

Then, earlier this year, the Government of Canada released a report on Canada’s Changing Climate. The report describes what type of changes we can expect to see in Canada, at varying levels of certainty. It describes how the climate is changing in Canada at twice the global average, and how that effect is particularly pronounced in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. We can anticipate more extreme weather events. This includes periods of extremely hot temperatures, higher drought, and fire risk. We can anticipate warmer, more acidic and less oxygenated oceans, which will challenge our already-stressed marine ecosystems.  If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current levels, sea level rise is predicted to reach 0.75-1.0 m, particularly in Eastern Canada, by 2100 (did you know that sea levels, and changes to sea levels, vary across the globe?).

Well, shoot. I think I really need to stop avoiding this information. But now I’m in that uncomfortable decision space of figuring what it is that I should do about this, exactly, and wishing I didn’t need to figure this out.  I’m certainly not the only one wrestling with this question – or trying to avoid wrestling with it. George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change  describes more than 40 reasons why climate change is a mentally challenging topic for humans to address. Climate change “[requires] certain short-term loss in order to mitigate against an uncertain longer-term loss”. It is “complex, unfamiliar, slow moving, invisible, and intergenerational”. “It does not have a single external enemy to focus our attention on – and, in fact, is partially caused by our own actions, living our normal and day to day lives.” No wonder it’s difficult for me and others that I know to really come to terms with it.

Choosing to acknowledge and face climate change is different than deciding to move to a new home because it isn’t just one decision to be made – it’s a series of decisions made over and over again, all the time. I can’t really move back to my old apartment once I’ve left – but on any given day I can avoid climate change by listening to the pop music station instead of the news, and I can watch a home-improvement show instead of writing a letter to my MLA about what policies I think they should be implementing.

I have noticed something interesting though. While facing climate change can be daunting and emotional, it still feels better than avoiding it. Avoiding it only really makes me feel better at the surface. The knowledge never really goes away – it just eats away at me slowly in the background. That feeling goes away when I start taking action towards it – whether by changing the way I live my own life or in helping a community to become more resilient to the changes that may be coming their way. I certainly can’t fix this whole thing on my own, but actively participating in addressing this challenge a much better place to be than in my old place on the sidelines.

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